Witnessing a Camel Sacrifice in Sudan

WARNING: Gruesome pics and story. I had no idea what to expect when I arrived in Sudan. But seeing a camel get its head cut off in a wildly violent camel sacrifice in front of my face was probably not near the top of the list, yet on day 2 that’s exactly what I saw.

I had almost finished my Cape Town to Cairo trip, through half the countries in Africa, and I was so excited to finally be in Sudan. I knew my next stop would finally be to check out the Pyramids of Sudan, before heading further north to spend 3 days in Cairo, Egypt. But before I could get my head around being in Sudan, I found myself in the middle of whirling dervishes, with a decapitated camel spurting blood over a crowd of people loudly cheering. Quite an introduction to traveling in Sudan!

Camel Sacrifice
Just before the Camel Sacrifice at a Sudanese Mosque

Arriving in Khartoum, & heading to the Mosque

I had arrived in Sudan the day before. Then we got the bus to Khartoum on a Friday (which is the Islamic Sabbath). After arranging my hotel, a cool Sudanese guy approached me and told me that at Hamed el-Nabil Mosque, people would be “dancing to worship Allah” and that I should go along. Of course, I was game. But I didn’t want to offend anyone by infringing on their religion. So I asked a couple of sagely-looking guys do they think it would be ok for me to go along.

Of course sir”, they insisted “Thank you for coming to Sudan. And thank you for your interest in our faith”. Amazing country, amazing people.

So I hopped in a rickshaw and off I went to Omdurman, in the northwest of the city. It apparently started around 3 pm. But when I got there I was told it didn’t get going until around 6 or 7. Being Sudan though, it’s almost impossible to be bored. So I choose one of the 10 offers of food and tea and sat down with a group of people.

When the time came I wandered into the Mosque with a local English teacher (who incidentally offered me a job teaching in his school!). There were about 2000 people who had come here to worship. Aside from 2 Italian pilots who lived there and worked for the World Food Program, there were no other tourists.

Camel Sacrifice
The Camel Sacrifice about to get going
Traveling in Sudan
Traveling in Sudan

Whirling Dervishes, Frankincense, and Chanting

Everyone was hugely interested in my presence. One guy specifically approached me to discuss the benefits of international travel, and the merits of Christianity working alongside Islam. His monologue finished with a big smile, a hearty handshake, and a huge bearhug.

Anyway, the ceremony got underway. The crowd formed a circle outside the mosque, where a couple of men were dancing and shaking instruments in the middle. The crowd began to chant slowly and quietly. A few more people joined the men in the middle. And the crowd picked up the pace a little bit. Before I knew it, about 15 men were in the center circle (turns out they were the Chiefs). The crowd began chanting and swaying rhythmically with more vigor.

This carried on while more guys marched in to join the Chiefs. They were carrying and burning frankincense which intensified the atmosphere further still. By this point the entire crowd we’re rocking back and forth in unison, closing in on the Chiefs. Whirling dervishes were running into the center of the circle and spinning uncontrollably as they chanted in Arabic. People were being to become entranced and the whole place was reaching a fever pitch. I was sweating just watching proceedings.

Camel Sacrifice, Sudan
Camel Sacrifice, Sudan

Introducing the Camel Sacrifice; the poor guy didn’t know what was coming

I looked around as I was snapping away on my camera. Out of nowhere, I saw a camel being brought into the affair. I found some guy with a smidgen of English, he informed me that I was very lucky because once a year they sacrificed a camel and that today was that day. On questioning, he revealed that one of the Chiefs would cut off the camel’s head in front of the crowd, and then they would eat the meat.

To be entirely honest, I was pretty shocked. I don’t mind admitting that I wasn’t overly enamored by the idea of watching a camel get decapitated before my eyes but then again this was a cultural experience I was unlikely to EVER see again. I’m a bloody vegetarian after all. But nothing was stopping these guys, so on they went.

Camels in Sudan
Preparing the camel
Dead Camels in Sudan
The Camel still alive, blood spurting

Cutting off the Camel’s Head

They brought the camel over, and (as human nature seems to dictate) a crowd immediately formed around the soon-to-be headless creature. A saw a guy put an apron on and unleash a ceremonial blade. The crowd cheered and the deed was close. They tied the camel’s head to his back leg so his jugular was facing forwards. The crowd was inching closer and closer as the ‘executioner’ (for the want of a better word) stepped toward the camel and, with a deep plunge, forced the blade through the throat and sawed back until the blade was free.

The dark red blood spurted out with an unbelievable force, covering a section of the crowd in its sticky resin. The camel was dead within 5 seconds and although that didn’t negate my horror entirely. I guess we should be thankful for small mercies. The camel may have been dead but 50% of his neck was still intact, so the executioner had to saw and hack and cut for a good 3 or 4 minutes until the head came free from the body. The puddle of blood by this stage was huge and people were standing in it without a care in the world.

The Camel Sacrifice in full flow
The Camel Sacrifice in full flow

Walking Away With The Camel’s Head

Someone walked in and picked the camel’s head and neck up. He walked over to a field a set it down there. The event was now finished with and, I guess the head was no longer necessary for the ceremony. I walked over to see the damage that had been done. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the animal as it lay there with its tongue hanging out, no one interested anymore.

The ceremony continued and the Chiefs gathered after the sacrifice and lifted some banners where they marched around the Mosque and then around the reformed circle of people. The whirling dervishes had been carrying on through the camel sacrifice, as had some of the chanters in the crowd so by the time I returned they were in a genuine trance. I’m struggling to articulate the intensity of the event. I can only hope that these words and pictures give even the slightest insight into this powerful event.

Chanting, spinning, swinging, swaying. This continued for another 30 minutes or so until the chiefs called a temporary intermission. At that juncture, some people would go to the mosque and pray.  Others would take the opportunity to replenish some the energy they had expended through chai, water, kebabs etc.

I was exhausted so I nipped over to the corner shop, ordered, and drunk 3 cokes in about 5 minutes. I needed the sugar badly. It was a struggle to get a grip on everything I had just seen. The Sudanese people I came across during my evening there were some of the warmest, friendliest, most open people I have ever met. So the last thing I wanted to do from this article was to portray them in a negative light.

Camels Head in Sudan
Camel Sacrifice Sudan
Camel Sacrifice Sudan
Camel Sacrifice Sudan

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